Ravenous by Henry Dimbleby — hungry for change

5 min

83 shares, 144 points

“One egg or two for breakfast?” This simple question is now fraught. Are eggs considered healthy or are they as bad as that sodium nitrite injected bacon? Can we afford eggs now the price has gone up about 25 per cent since last year? And in any case, with avian flu sweeping through poultry stocks, can we even find them?

The headlines are alarming. Climate change, crop failures and zoonotic diseases; supermarket shelves empty of basics such as tomatoes or sunflower oil. The statistics paint a contradictory picture: inflation of food prices in Britain (and much of the rest of the world) is now over 16 per cent, the highest for 40 years, but we are still spending a historically low percentage of our income on food.

Of the food we eat in the UK, 57 per cent is ultra-processed. Obesity figures continue to rise but the diet industry that promises to thin us down only grows inexorably alongside.

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It was clear even before Covid, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the soaring cost of energy-disrupted supply chains, that our food systems were not working.

In 2019, the government tasked Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the sustainably minded fast-food restaurant chain Leon, food activist and government adviser, with heading the first review into food in Britain since the second world war.

How can we feed ourselves affordably, without destroying both our own health and the health of our planet? Dimbleby was charged with finding the answer.

Line chart of Annual % change in UK food prices showing Prior to last year Britons had become used to long periods of falling food prices or low rises

In July 2020 he published the second part of the National Food Strategy document, a comprehensive and ambitious analysis that dug into the complexities of land use, farming systems, social inequality, nutrition and public health. It won praise and recognition from many: from King Charles to chef Jamie Oliver, as well as doctors and leaders of food advocacy groups.

Dimbleby concluded the report with 14 concrete recommendations specifically chosen for their modest achievability. One was to tax salt and sugar used in processed food. When asked for his opinion, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted he hadn’t read the report and made an off-the-cuff remark saying he wasn’t much attracted to extra taxes for hard working people.

Since then, through the several cycles of governments and ministers, only a few of the report’s recommendations have been partially put into place.

Ravenous is Dimbleby’s revenge book.

It is a clear, reasoned and meticulously footnoted argument for a coherent food policy. His frustration with the slow-footed incrementalism of the government’s reaction is palpable.

This month, he also resigned from his governmental post, frustrated at continued inaction and wanting to be free to speak out.

The problems with our existing food systems are well known. The Green Revolution of the 1950s and ’60s banished hunger by creating an industrialised agriculture, relying on monocultures to reap economies of scale.

It’s a global problem and the developed world is exporting its junk food habit. The fact that agriculture is now one of the leading emitters of greenhouses gases and pollution has become as axiomatic as the knowledge that our hyper-processed diet is making us fat and ill. What to do about it, as Dimbleby acknowledges, is more complicated.

Bar chart of Global land use for agriculture (hectares bn) showing Reducing meat and dairy consumption would make a huge difference to land use

From microbiomes of our guts to geopolitical macroeconomics, Dimbleby does not shy away from the complexity. Ravenous is comprehensive and concise, digging down into food poverty, overfishing, soil health, animal welfare, waste, rewilding, seaweed farming, new drugs to combat obesity, lab-grown meat and how highly processed foods strip nutrients from ingredients.

Some of what Dimbleby covers is old hat; much is fascinating. I knew, for example, that junk food is engineered to a bliss point ratio of fat to salt to sugar to create that moreish taste, but I didn’t know how hunger hormones work to trigger appetite.

I knew that intensive agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouses gases; I didn’t realise the extent to which it is unbalancing “abiotic systems” that regulate nitrogen in water and carbon cycles. I knew that there was no single government department responsible for food strategy, but I didn’t understand the way institutions can get stuck in “system dynamics” of feedback loops that block reform.

Inevitably broader access to healthier, sustainably produced food founders in the Bermuda triangle of cost, price and value. We are all confused standing in a supermarket aisle trying to weigh our ethics and our budgets against the price of an organic chicken and the carbon footprint of a Mexican avocado. As Dimbleby dispiritedly admits: “The plain fact is that unhealthy processed food is cheaper per calorie than fresh food.”

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Part of the reason for this is that the cost to society of environmental degradation and public health are not counted at the till. “Crucially,” Dimbleby points out, the global economy “does not place any financial value on nature.” But to do so would require a reaccounting of the capitalist model that has underpinned our rapacious, extractive, Anthropocene age. And, more prosaically, probably double the cost of our weekly shop.

How to balance tax and subsidy with market mechanisms and encourage regenerative agriculture or quantify sustainability? As the debate has become polarised, Dimbleby — neither free marketeer nor ecowarrior — has tried to occupy the middle ground of reasoned, practical advice.

Book cover of ‘Ravenous’

He advocates a multipronged approach, citing Finland as an example, where the government has used the “nudge theory” to implement varied initiatives, including public health campaigns, regulating advertising and encouraging food manufacturers to reformulate healthier products. Together, these create “a joined-up public health policy that had tangible results in reducing heart disease and increasing life expectancy”.

For a more sustainable agriculture, Dimbleby suggests creating new metrics to allocate land use more efficiently; rewilding unproductive farmland; encouraging symbiotic farming techniques such as rotation and intercropping as well as technology to reduce the use of fertiliser and pesticides.

Addressing public health, he argues that there is broad popular support for government intervention to curb junk-food advertising and impose financial disincentives for manufacturers to add fat and salt and sugar to their products, despite the objections of vested interests noisily resisting “nanny-state” regulations.

“The government’s ‘strategy’,” Dimbleby writes, putting the word “strategy” between ironic quote marks, “is far too scant, fragmented, and cautious to meet the scale of the problem.” Too often, he complains, policy is stymied by departmental silos, the vested interests of multinationals and the delays of administrative procedure. Ministers seem to pander to optics and donors instead of public opinion.

It shouldn’t take a footballer such as Marcus Rashford to shame the government into providing free school meals in the holidays. In an appendix to Ravenous, Dimbleby reiterates his National Strategy recommendations and provides updates on the government’s implementation.

Several schemes, pilots and funding have been announced, but almost all carry caveats: “partial commitment”, he remarks under two, “little visible progress”, after another, “progress unclear”, “moving too slowly”, “implementation is well behind schedule”, “funding looks insufficient”.

Under the recommendation to extend eligibility for free school meals, something that Rashford campaigned for, gathering a petition with more than 1mn signatures, Dimbleby notes simply: not done.

Ravenous: How to Get Ourselves and Our Planet into Shape by Henry Dimbleby with Jemima Lewis, Profile £16.99, 336 pages

Henry Dimbleby will be appearing at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday March 25 at 10am

Data visualisation by Keith Fray

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Source: Financial Times

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83 shares, 144 points

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